Twenty years ago Bernhard Langer might have encountered flames of a different nature at La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, but in the first round of the 2006 WGC – Accenture Match Play it was the German’s own game which was on fire as he produced one of the performances of the day to oust Number Four seed Ernie Els from the tournament.
The 48 year old German – a masterful Captain of Europe’s winning Ryder Cup Team at Oakland Hills in 2004 – showed he was no slouch himself in the match play arena with a stirring showing to beat Els – a record six time winner of the HSBC World Match Play Championship at Wentworth Club – on the final green.
Langer was one of 15 European Tour Members who progressed through to round two in the first of the World Golf Championships of the season and, in talking about his victory, recounted a tale of his first visit to the southern California venue in 1986 to play the old Tournament of Champions event on the US PGA Tour.
“There was a pro-am on the Wednesday and we were walking down the 13th when one of my amateur partners said, ‘Oh look, there’s some smoke up there on the hillside,’” said Langer.
“We are all looking up at these beautiful homes on top of the hill when he then shouts, ‘Oh heck, that’s my house on fire!’ We can laugh now about it but was pretty sad for him at the time and I always think about that when I walk past that hole – I’ve never seen anyone run up that hill as fast as he did and he was gone, never to be seen again.”
The 13th hole might not have been lucky for his partner those 20 years ago but it proved a pivotal hole for Langer as a birdie four brought his match with Els level and he went on to win following a telling birdie three at the 17th where he holed from eight feet after a superb second shot.
“Ernie is tough in match play and you can see why he has won at Wentworth so many times,” said Langer, who will now face Canadian Mike Weir in round two. “His long game might not have been 100 per cent today but his short game was awesome.
“It just shows that he never gives up. He had a lot of great up and down and made numerous putts from eight to 15 feet. He fights until the very end and I knew I had to play well to have any chance of victory. But I did play well and I played strongly in the holes coming in which was encouraging for me.”
While Langer ended his match on the 18th green, two men who were in his successful Team at Oakland Hills – David Howell and Colin Montgomerie – had to go even further to book their respective berths in round two, two of seven first round matches which went into extra holes.
Howell recovered from being one down with two to play to beat Australian Steve Elkington on the 22nd, while Montgomerie, who was one down with three to play against Niclas Fasth, turned matters around to win on the 23rd.
Montgomerie got off to a flier and was four up after seven holes but Fasth gradually nibbled away at the Scot’s lead. Into extra holes, both players had opportunities to close out the match but the denouement came on the short fifth where Fasth pushed his tee shot right of the green and failed to get up and down for par.
“Even when you’re four up you are never really comfortable,” said Montgomerie, who will now face Japan’s Shingo Katayama. “He wins the eighth and the ninth to peg me back to two up and suddenly, bingo, it’s a different ball game. But I did okay. There are important Ryder Cup and World points on offer here this week and after missing the last two cuts in Europe, it was important I won.”
Howell, like Montgomerie, was well ahead in the early stages but looked in danger when Elkington pegged him back. But a superb up and down from sand on the 17th saw the Englishman level the match and he booked his place in round two at the fourth extra hole, Elkington offering his hand after failing to make his par putt from nine feet.
“It was the classic game of two halves,” said Howell, who now comes up against American Scott Verplank. “I was in complete control and Steve wasn’t playing great. I had every chance to close it out nice and early but then I played poorly in the middle and then he was probably disappointed not to win being one up with two to play. Fortunately, I was the lucky one.”
Joining the trio in round two are fellow European Tour Members; Adam Scott, José Maria Olazábal, Henrik Stenson, Nick O’Hern, Angel Cabrera, Padraig Harrington, Luke Donald, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen, John Daly, Carl Pettersson and Miguel Angel Jiménez. From the group, there are only two all European Tour round two ties, with Singh facing Jiménez and Cabrera playing Harrington.
However, packing their bags for home alongside Els and Fasth were: Lee Westwood, Mark Hensby, Paul McGinley, Ian Poulter, Tim Clark, Paul Casey, Michael Campbell, Richard Green, Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Paul Broadhurst.
Elsewhere, the performance of the first round was posted by Number One seed Tiger Woods who crushed Stephen Ames – a last minute replacement for the injured Thomas Björn – by 9 and 8, the record winning margin in the tournament’s seven year history.
The World Number One won all nine holes on the outward half, including the first six in a row with birdies, and indeed had a birdie putt from 22 feet at the tenth to win that hole too to record the maximum 10 and 8 winning margin possible in an 18 hole match play contest. Fortunately, for the deflated Ames, he missed, exhibiting his only charity of the day.